Life lessons from Barcelona

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Kelsi Krandel/Staff

The thing about going from London to Barcelona in July is that you don’t realize that you’d forgotten what heat really feels like.

Even late at night, I might as well have stepped off the plane and into a sauna. Summers in London are mild and cloudy. Needless to say, that’s not really the case on the Mediterranean. This, I reminded myself, was what summer felt like.

I had been planning this trip for a while. When I found out that one of my closest childhood friends would be studying abroad in Dublin during my summer abroad program, we knew we had to meet up somewhere. And, after some discussion, she booked an Airbnb and I got a plane ticket to Spain.

Once there, I had a few hours to kill before she arrived, which was just enough time for the world to remind me that sometimes everything that can go wrong, will. And you cannot call yourself a world traveler if you don’t face that reality at least once.

My friend had told me that our Airbnb owner knew when I was coming and to just email him when I arrived. And so I did, and I waited. And I continued to wait. I sent a second email. I waited more. I began to panic. I looked up my friend’s plane to find it was delayed. Panic turned into terror. What if he didn’t check his email? What were we supposed to do?

I had waited outside for about two hours before he finally came down to get me, apologizing and saying he didn’t know when I was arriving. Regardless, as I went up to our tiny bedroom in his and his wife’s apartment and greeted my friend when she arrived, I had been reminded of my golden rule of international travel: sometimes everything that can go wrong, will.

It would not be the last time I’d deal with that rule on this trip.

Our morning seemed to set up a nearly perfect day in Barcelona. We arrived early at Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s iconic Gaudi church. We marveled at its exterior over mojito gelato and watched a street performer make giant bubbles in the park before we finally went inside the church.

I had been to Barcelona once before about nine years ago. Back then, the perpetually-under-construction church hadn’t even been finished inside yet, and visitors were not permitted. Since Sagrada Familia was one of the only things I remembered from that visit, I was so excited to finally see the inside. And I was not disappointed. The church is interesting from the outside and breathtaking from the inside. As you stare up at the columns designed to feel like a canopy of trees with the rainbow-colored light of the stained glass windows shining in, it’s difficult to feel anything other than wonder. I felt like I could have stayed in there all day, just staring up at incredible craftsmanship. No wonder the church had been under construction since 1882 — the amount of detail was nothing short of incredible.

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The rest of the afternoon began mostly smoothly. After some wandering, we finally headed in the right direction. We popped into a small cafe and treated ourselves to a wonderful lunch of sangria and paella. It all seemed so perfect and Spanish.

We’d nearly arrived at Park Güell for our next dose of Gaudi architecture when I learned my first new lesson from Barcelona: don’t wear denim shorts in the Mediterranean in July.

We’d been walking uphill for a while when I began to really notice the slight irritation that had been setting in since we arrived. Because it was no longer slight, every step hurt. We were nearly at the park when I finally couldn’t take it anymore and stopped to figure out the problem. I looked down at my thighs — my red, raw, angry-looking thighs. I had chafed, and badly so. The panic from the night before began to set in again. How on earth was I going to make it through this weekend like this?

I did my best. I waddled up stairs. I found a way to walk slowly that minimized the chafing from a searing pain to a dull burn. I was going to deal with this the best I could until I could find a solution.

Even with my incredibly unfortunate situation, it was impossible not to enjoy Park Güell. The architecture was beautiful, and from the top of the complex we could see a view of the whole city, all the way down to the Mediterranean Sea.

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On the way back, we stopped at the first pharmacy we saw and begged for help. They seemed to understand me, and since at first glance what they handed me seemed to look okay in my eyes and through the lens of my below-elementary Spanish language skills, I took it and used it. I didn’t think about why it stung a bit when I applied it — I figured that just meant it was working, like the sting of iodine on a fresh cut.

Lesson number two: don’t assume the Spanish pharmacists can understand you and just take whatever they give you and use it in copious amounts. It might turn out to be hair removal cream.

We made this discovery a few hours later when I asked my friend if I was using an adequate amount of this stuff. So, like the good pre-med student she was, she dug up the full sheet of directions and medical information to look for the active ingredient. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone laugh so hard. As I sat there half laughing at myself and half crying inside, she called her mother who’s a nurse to share the story through tears of mirth.

We didn’t feel like adventuring too much that evening — I, for one, was exhausted from self-shaming for my idiocy. We just wanted tapas. And so Yelp led us to a small and deserted place just a block away. And there I became especially grateful for my friend’s phenomenal Spanish language skills. Even in Barcelona where the primary language is Catalan, Spanish is still incredibly useful. She was able to converse so easily with everyone and allowed us to make fast friends with the restaurant’s two owners. It made for an excellent Spanish evening — good tapas, good wine and good company.

The first thing we did the next morning was find another pharmacy. And because on rare occasions fate is kind and generous, the pharmacist there spoke nearly perfect English. She gave me an anti-chafing cream, and I could have kissed the ground she walked on.

We had decided to spend our Sunday in the city’s Gothic Quarter, wandering through pretty streets and pretty churches. We were outside the Basilica de Santa Maria del Pi when we stumbled across a free walking tour of the quarter. The happy accident turned out to make for a great morning, wandering through backstreets and learning things we never would have found out otherwise.

The rest of the afternoon proceeded according to plan, for once.  We checked out churches. We got free Sunday afternoon entry into the Museu Picasso. We wandered through the greenery and beautiful buildings of Parc de la Ciutadella on our way to the pier, where we enjoyed a touristy but still great dinner of more paella.

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After that, my friend and I separated. She was staying an extra day to make use of her free Monday, but I had to get back to London. I ultimately had a good time in Barcelona, but I was ready to get back to London where I could wear long pants and — you know – not chafe.

In the end, it was an amazing weekend. Despite the hiccups, I had an amazing time in a beautiful city with one of my best friends. I  just learned a couple of important things such as the importance of communicating more transparently with your Airbnb host and making sure your attire won’t cause problems.

And seriously, read the freaking labels when you buy something from a Spanish pharmacy.

Image sources: Kelsi Krandel/Staff